One of the most interesting articles I've read in a while. He seems to do one of these a couple of times a year.
Ferguson plots his new year assault on English crown
Manchester United's manager does not begrudge Chelsea their wealth but predicts they will wobble on their visits north and reminds all rivals that his team make few mistakes in the second half of the season
Saturday December 18, 2004
Christmas is coming and Sir Alex Ferguson is preparing to pen his annual list. It is not the list he sends up the chimney with various names on it of players he would like at Manchester United, but one he writes for his own consumption. It is the fixture list from New Year's Day onwards of those he regards as United's challengers for the league title. Top of it this year will be Chelsea.
"I always write down the programme of the competitors," Ferguson said in his Piccadilly Circus of an office this week. "I always think the league starts on New Year's Day. It's amazing how accurate I am - honestly - where points will be dropped and points won. I haven't done this season's yet but I look at us and we've been to some awkward places, Blackburn, Newcastle, Bolton; we've been to Chelsea.
"Chelsea, they will find it difficult coming north to get points, they will. But then we have to give ourselves a proper chance. We've got to start winning games 1-0 if we're to win the league. If we win seven games 1-0 in the second half of the season then we will definitely win the league."
Provocation is all part of a morning's work for Ferguson. It is a bold claim, born in part of the frustration at seeing United fail to win 1-0 at Fulham on Monday night having dominated the game. The concession of an 87th-minute Fulham equaliser had him still grimacing three days on. The draw left United nine points behind Chelsea and Ferguson ruing yet more squandered opportunities that will undermine his side's aspirations if they continue. "Fulham?" he spluttered through his cup of tea. "If we were four up at half-time Fulham would have said, 'Thank **** for that. We got off light.' And I keep thinking about those chances we missed at Blackburn Rovers, the ball hitting the keeper's face, knees, ankles, incredible. Then Portsmouth away - 18 opportunities in a game and we don't score. Then Monday night."
Two draws and a defeat in those three matches represent the loss of seven points. Yet when not reflecting on that through gritted teeth, Ferguson was upbeat. He had just filmed a charity version of Who Wants To Be A Millionaire, to be broadcast over Christmas, and this meant a heated discussion was in flow ranging from American civil rights to the merits of various communist revolutionaries. On his desk, meanwhile, a huge pile of Christmas cards had just been signed, and at regular intervals the door opened to reveal the likes of Ruud van Nistelrooy and United's secretary Ken Merrett, who was off to the Champions League draw.
A fortnight short of his 63rd birthday, Ferguson had been in since 7am and as an illustration of his famed mental and physical energy this was powerful. Soon he would pull on boots to oversee training for today's game with Crystal Palace and if this appetite for work can be transmitted once again to his players then United can catch Chelsea.
As a long-term replacement for Roy Keane, Ferguson would clearly love to have Steven Gerrard aiding that chase. But he is resigned to not getting the Liverpudlian - "I don't really want to discuss Gerrard. We just can't get Gerrard, the boy won't come here" - and he does not envisage spending or selling next month. "I consider 25 players enough and I have young players doing very well. We always have to bring young players through." And offloading? "That's a possibility - in loan situations, not selling."
So if history is to be defied, it will be by this group. The history, which Ferguson said "is not nothing, it's something," would be a second consecutive Premiership season without United as champions. This has not happened since the formation of the Premiership, since United ended a 25-season quest for the title in 1992-93. That phrase "shift in power" would be heard again.
Not that Ferguson is thinking this way, of course. "You look at it and in the history of the Premier Division we make less mistakes in the second part of the season than in the first," he said. "There's no doubt about that. I go back to that time [October 1996] when we lost 5-0 to Newcastle, 6-3 to Southampton, 2-1 to Chelsea and Radio 5 had an hour-long programme saying the end of United. When it matters, we make less mistakes.
"We have bad starts after World Cups and European Championships. Certainly it's our own fault this year with the American tour - Silvestre, the Nevilles, Scholes and Van Nistelrooy should not have gone; they'd only trained three days [after Euro 2004]. But we were getting threatened with injunctions, supporters - bloody nightmare. But with [Rio] Ferdinand back and [Wayne] Rooney getting fitter, what we're seeing now is form, and there's no doubt in terms of performance it's championship form. It's going to be difficult, yes, but four points off Arsenal is nothing; nine points off Chelsea concerns me much more."
Ferguson, though referring once to Chelsea as "the money machine" and once as "the bottomless pot", also showed generosity to the phenomenon at Stamford Bridge. United have spent heavily in their time, too, £27m on Wayne Rooney in August for example, but the club's wealth is generated by their fans, not by an indulgent owner such as Roman Abramovich. In the case of Arjen Robben United have already experienced the thump of Abramovich's wallet, yet Ferguson said: "At the end of the day Chelsea have every right to win the league whatever way they think is best. No one should be criticising them for that; I don't think they deserve that. If you asked an old Chelsea fan of 70, who was a kid when they won the league in '55, what he thinks, you'll get your answer. I think you should only do what is right for your club and in doing that sometimes you have to take the criticism.
"It depends on who you buy, that's the determining factor. It all boils down to the manager. Sometimes you get real bargains, sometimes you have to pay the premium to get the player you want. In Chelsea's situation with [Jose] Mourinho having a bottomless pot, so they say, he has got options, whereas we maybe have only one player and have to set down a road to get that one player. Like most clubs, we have limits. It seems to be Chelsea don't have limits, though I don't know whether that's true or not. And sometimes you can muddy the waters - in the summer they bought six, say they buy two in January and six more in the summer - all I'm saying is that sometimes money can muddy the waters."
Classic Ferguson. Singleminded to the point of fanaticism, he had just turned Chelsea's overwhelming economic strength into a potential defect. This is even after the Robben episode, when United were eventually elbowed aside by Chelsea.
"Robben was all down to money, absolutely. We made an offer for Robben we thought was fair. It was €10m for a 19-year-old lad, with add-ons taking it up to €16m. Of course Peter Kenyon [United's chief executive then, now Chelsea's] knew the players we were after. He doesn't now, but he did then. Therefore he knew the details. People said we made a mess of it; we didn't make a mess, we offered a fair price for a 19-year-old. We were trumped - the bottomless pot. It means in future our scouting abilities are going to have to be more acute. Our knowledge of young players around the world is getting stronger; we are working really hard at that. When you're up against the money machine, you have to think about that.
"And without doubt Chelsea are the new force. You could see weeks ago they had a consistency and were the ones to catch. Yet their form is not much different from last season. They're on 40 points; this time last season they had 39, I think. If you look at the last few seasons, Chelsea have always been up there at this time. It's when they come north, you'll see. They have to go to Liverpool and Everton - so have we. But our record isn't bad there and maybe we got rid of these dirty, horrible results." Chelsea have also to visit Old Trafford.
And Everton's title hopes? "No chance."
So back to Chelsea and Ferguson's New Year theory. "It's different after New Year, different pressures, you see. I think Chelsea have done fantastically, but there's the European Cup, the FA Cup starts, the semi-finals of the League Cup - it's a new ball game. Even though Arsenal went through last season undefeated they had a lot of draws, scrappy draws, and that was down to the fact of their determination not to lose the unbeaten record. But unbeaten records don't bother me, what I think about is how we can win the league. That usually narrows down to how many defeats you have and your form in the second half of the season.
What concerns Ferguson, though, is the number of United wins, so far only eight from 17 games. The lowest total United have won in their six Premiership titles since it went to 38 games is 21. Equalling that would need 13 more victories but - to take the title this time - it is likely to have to be higher, 16 or 17 from the remaining 21. United have scored fewer goals at this stage than in the past 10 seasons; Van Nistelrooy, who is likely to be out for a further month with a calf injury, is being missed.
"Of course you miss him," Ferguson said. "He is one of the few strikers I know who separates himself from the game. His thinking is all about his position and his marker's. He's old-fashioned, like Paolo Rossi of Italy. Van Nistelrooy's awareness of space is unbelievable. His whole mental attitude in the penalty area is that if that ball comes into that space, I'll be there. He's unusual, fantastic concentration, and I think he's becoming more concentrated."
By now the boots were on and Ferguson was thinking of Palace today, and of how Birmingham let Andy Johnson go. "But then United gave David Platt a free; it can happen." He said he rates Palace for their aggression, straightforwardness and most of all because "they work their balls off".